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Mike Nussbaum as Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre’s 2017 production of Relativity. Credit: Michael Brosilow

At age 98, Mike Nussbaum is the oldest (and still, perhaps, one of the best) working actors in the Actors’ Equity Association. His memory is sharp and he can still memorize his lines.

The only sign that age may be slowing him a bit seems to be his cane.

Though he said he’s hesitant to navigate moving around a stage, reading a play from the stationary position of a chair is an ideal alternative, especially when the play was written for him by famed playwright David Mamet. 

Mamet’s ‘curtain-raiser’

About 75 residents at Avidor, a senior apartment complex at 1727 Oak Ave., were treated to a private performance by Nussbaum and his longtime friend B.J. Jones, Artistic Director of Northlight Theatre. They read Pilot’s Lounge, a 12-minute, two-person play inspired by a story Nussbaum shared with Mamet years ago.

As Nussbaum tells the story, Jones “requested a short play from Mamet. They used to call them ‘curtain-raisers,’ but no one uses that term anymore. Mamet sent this over and on the first page he had written, ‘A play for Mike Nussbaum.’” 

Watching the two top-level theater professionals read the play, it was clear they were two friends having fun.

Nussbaum accompanied Jones and Kim Hoopingarner, Northlight’s Director of Advancement, to Avidor to connect with the building’s residents, who will soon be neighbors of the new theater. Three Avidor residents are already on Northlight’s advisory board. But the new building, which Hoopingarner hopes will open by September 2024, will literally be around the corner from the Avidor’s front door. 

Hoopingarner described the yet-to-be-constructed space as one they hope will be “a true public square” that is busy seven days a week. It will be a place to keep building Northlight’s extensive partnerships with multiple nonprofit organizations in Evanston. She also said the theater staff envision it to be a home for a film series, educational initiatives and collaborations with Northwestern University.  

It will be accessible in compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act and have wider aisles and embedded technology for those with assisted hearing devices.

Jones is eager to welcome all of Evanston to the building.

“Building a theater happens once in a lifetime,” he said. “We are committed to giving back to the community that has been so generous to Northlight.”

Nussbaum: Longevity is ‘pure luck’

Nussbaum, who is also a star on the big screen with film roles that include Field of Dreams, Fatal Attraction and Men in Black, talked candidly about his life and his family.

He said his longevity is a result of “pure luck.” In his younger days he was a heavy smoker and in his first career he was an exterminator. “I drink. I eat too much on occasion,” he said. “I’ve always had heart issues because I had rheumatic fever as a kid.”

Rheumatic fever was, indirectly, the reason he got into acting. To help his recovery, his parents sent him to Camp Ojibwa for Boys in Eagle River, Wis., for two months, an experience he repeated for nine consecutive summers and which he said was life changing.

“It added a physical element to my life that I would not have had otherwise. … In some ways, it was a terrible camp because it was the most competitive situation you could imagine,” he said. “To do a show, there was competition to come up with the best idea. We’d be on a three-day overnight canoe trip and would be rehearsing the play from the canoes. But it was a great experience. I learned to be athletic there.”

Nussbaum also talked about his family and the recent death of his daughter, Susan, who died six weeks ago at the age of 68.

“She was an actor and a writer, a playwright, a director. She was a prize-winning novelist. And she was also a quadriplegic,” he said. “She was a student at the Goodman School of Drama when she was hit by a car walking to school when she was 24.” 

She also became a fierce advocate for the disabled community.

He said his daughter died at home, surrounded by family and friends, and he added, she lived “about 25 years longer than expected. In some ways, it was the most beautiful process, to meet the people who she needed … not full-time help, but a group of women she needed to help her get up in the morning and go to bed each evening. And I met them. They were the most wonderful women that I’ve run across,” he said. “They were so loving … I can’t get over the laughter, the joy.”

Nussbaum also discussed his future and possible stage projects. But he remains unsure. “B.J. has a play in mind, but it will be in a year or so,” he said. “Who knows?”

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. Mr. N. is a national treasure, but Chicago claims him as their own – one of the very best actors this town has ever seen. I am so inspired by his passion for the work itself, that comes through loud and clear in every single performance he gives. I can’t imagine how many individual actors he has nurtured, encouraged and mentored.

  2. This is a great story. Thanks for writing (and publishing) it to share with everyone who couldn’t be there in person.